“People generally express more on between their sentences when they’re not speaking. Words are usually there to disguise who someone is or what they’re feeling.”
January 22, 2021 marks 13 years since the world lost the prolific performer Heath Ledger, an artist who tragically died at the tender age of 28. The actor, who should be turning 42 this year, was snatched away from the world of cinema by the cruel hands of fate in a desperately dreadful loss. Ledger’s cinematic legacy left an indelible mark on not only Hollywood but the rest of the world, where people mourned the loss of a legend who had left the world too soon. While it is undisputed that Hollywood owes a lot to Ledger, let us trace back the journey of the legend from a mere supporting actor in independent Australian cinema to a celebrated and adored A-lister whose untimely demise left a gaping hole in the heart of the film industry.
Born as Heath Andrew Ledger on April 4, 1979, to Sally Ramshaw and Kim Ledger, the budding creative spent most of his formative years at Perth. He had discovered his knack for acting at a very young age after having enacted as Peter Pan at the mere age of 10 in a school play. His sister Kate, who later became a publicist, played a major role in materialising his dreams by inspiring him to pursue his passion. Ledger was also an avid chessplayer and would go on to direct his directorial feature debut The Queen’s Gambit which ultimately remained incomplete due to his premature death. The show, which is now a blockbuster Netflix mini-series, has a tragic connection to Ledger who “was passionate about it”. What’s more, given the recent success of The Queen’s Gambit, the project offers a glimpse into the visionary viewpoint of Ledger and his innate storytelling ability.
As Alan Scott described him, Ledger was “an intense, interested man”. He was enigmatic in every sense and undertook high-risk challenges; one such challenge being him quitting school to follow his heart’s calling. A determined hard-worker, he would stop at nothing as he drove nearly cross-country from Perth to Sydney to secure a small-time role in Clowning Around. Ledger made various appearances in mixed roles in Ship to Shore, Roar, Blackrock, 10 Things I Hate About You and more. From the early 2000s, his career started kicking off with him getting noticed and finally winning an award as the “male Star of tomorrow.”
It was not until he played Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee’s 2005 flick Brokeback Mountain that Heath’s true potential was realised. He delivered a phenomenal performance as the confused ranch head who is caught between his love for his fellow ranch manager Jack Twist, played by Ledger’s buddy Jake Gyllenhaal and the inherently homophobic society as well as his duties to his family. At 26, he was the ninth-youngest nominee to have received an Academy Award nomination. The astounding silences that prevail in the film are a product of Ledger’s creative genius; he delivers the dialogues with equally fervent passion and eloquence. The final scene is sure to break the hardest of hearts as he inhales in the scent of his now-deceased lover and ponders over the bygone times and the thoughts of what could have been. As he pines for his lover, our hearts ache and finally shatters at his pain. As Ledger himself described the role which was quite close to his heart, “The lack of words he [Ennis] had to express himself, his inability to love made the role enjoyable.”
“As you know, madness is like gravity…all it takes is a little push.”
Brokeback Mountain proved the start of something new for Ledger who went on to star in an Australian flick Candy where he played a young heroin addict who was desperately trying to sober up. Following his splendid performance, he portrayed one of the six sides, precisely the romanticist side of Bob Dylan, as a brooding artist in Todd Haynes’ 2007 flick I’m Not There. He shared the award for the latter film posthumously with the rest of the crew.
Ledger’s ultimate challenge came to him in the form of a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy”. He played his final part in the cinematic realm as the legendary and psychotic Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight which required utmost dedication and practice for him to perfect the quintessential blood-curdling Joker laugh. Ledger had locked himself in a London hotel room for a month to manifest the Joker’s character. As his father Kim later said, he maintained a diary documenting this process of psychological transformation. The diary which turned more menacing, hurtful and anguished with every turn of page ended with a simple ‘bye-bye’. Kim sadly admitted that Ledger “liked to dive into his characters, but this time he really took it up a notch”. Although it is absolutely fallacious to dedicate his descent into psychological animosity to his role as the Joker, the rigorous preparations he undertook was definitely a catalyst.
“Why so serious?”
Ledger had always suffered from insomnia. He suffered from severe bouts of sleep deprivation. His already troubled sleep cycle was even more perturbed by the “physically and mentally draining” role of the Joker. To enact his part of the “absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded mass-murdering clown”, Ledger treaded dangerous waters. He indulged himself to free-willy into the realm of the psychopaths, which further deteriorated his already sleep-deprived conditions.
Ledger was slowly growing immune to even Ambien pills – he would take one and then wake up in an hour in “a stupor…his mind still racing”. Ledger bore the cursed crux of stardom, and he indulged in drug abuse which not only caused rifts in his personal life but also led to his premature departure.
“Katie, Katie, I’ll be fine.”
In his last conversation with his sister and mentor, Katie, when the latter warned him against mixing medicinal drugs without knowing the repercussions, Ledger simply sent a reassurance. A few hours later, he was discovered lying lifeless in his apartment. Having consumed large quantities of medicinal drugs that are prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, pain, common cold and more, at a tender age of 28, just six months before he would be honoured the Best Actor award at the Academy Awards, he lost his life to substance overdose, leaving fans all over the world shattered and shocked. He was survived by his family as well as estranged partner Michelle Williams and daughter. In light of such events, Ledger’s quote that has been used at the top of the article seems relevant and terrifyingly significant.
Ledger’s genius remains unparalleled. His role of Joker has been bequeathed and reiterated by Jared Leto and the talented Joaquin Phoenix. Yet, Ledger’s Joker is iconic; it exists as an emotion, transcending the film itself. His mind was his greatest gift and his biggest enemy. As Gary Oldman said, “I haven’t seen a villain like this or a bad guy like this since Dennis Hopper played Frank Booth in Blue Velvet – this outscares Hannibal Lecter. He was contaminated by the Joker.”
Although Hollywood was deprived of the raw genius and stupendous talent of Heath Ledger, he continues to live in the hearts of loved ones and fans who were touched by his brilliant on-screen persona and the ability to make his character’s emotions palpable to the core. On this day, let us all take a moment to mourn and celebrate, love and cherish the memory of this legend and bask in his brilliance as well as the glorious legacy he left behind. A troubled legend who changed lives but was probably helpless in his own. A legend gone too soon.
“Smile, because it confuses people. Smile, because it’s easier than explaining what is killing you inside.”